For the last two weeks, I’ve been text messaging Nour, a Syrian refugee on the perilous route from her war-torn country to Europe. I’ve followed her progress through the bombed-out city of Harasta, warned her against trusting strangers in Damascus, and even sent her selfies to make her laugh.
There’s a catch: Nour doesn’t exist. She’s the virtual protagonist of Bury Me, My Love, a mobile game out now on Google Play and the App Store. I’m playing Majid, her dutiful and occasionally goofy husband who’s opted to stay behind to look after elderly relatives. It’s my job to support and advise Nour as she winds her way through Syria to safety abroad, which the game presents as text-based options in a messaging interface not unlike WhatsApp, the preferred texting app of immigrants everywhere.
Dana, a Damascus-born student now residing in Germany, has also been playing the game. “I played it first with my sister,” the 25 year old tells me over the phone. “We were so happy when we did something right, like when [Nour] crossed the sea. But I haven’t finished it yet. I’m trying to continue with my sister.”
The difference, however, is that Dana actually lived the events that Bury Me, My Love depicts. She traveled from Syria to Germany as one of the million or so migrants who crossed the Mediterranean to find safety in Europe. (Dana’s last name has been withheld to protect her privacy.) When French production studio The Pixel Hunt and journalist Pierre Corbinais began writing its storyline, Dana was brought on as an editorial consultant to ensure that it stayed true to the real-life journey that she and other migrants embarked on, and to channel the details of her own experience into the game.
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The game has multiple endings—including some tragic ones—based on the advice that Majid hands out to Nour, lending every decision a nerve-wracking quality. The events of the game take place in real time, with the consequences of my guidance unspooling on a day to day basis. That meant hours before I would get a notification on my phone from Nour, leaving me wondering if my encouragement to get on a bus or escape a refugee camp had led to danger or salvation.
Dana, on the other hand, managed to make her way to Germany with her brother-in-law after passing through Syria and Lebanon. From there, they were smuggled to Lesvos in Greece on a boat and then crossed multiple land borders to make it to safety. “It took me two weeks exactly,” Dana says. “We spent $1,500 for me and my brother in law.”
Is it strange to play Bury Me, My Love, given that she actually experienced some of its events? “No, it’s not, because I know the 19 ways to finish the game. I already know this and my story isn’t exactly the same.
“I hope people will not see that this is my story, but a story from all the [Syrian] people,” she adds. “Nineteen ways to finish the game is not that much.”
Up until last year, Dana was in her third year studying English translation at her local university. As the brutal civil war in Syria dragged on in 2016, her entire world shrank to the three-bedroom house she grew up in—its guest bedroom on the ground floor was the safest place from any violence on the streets. “My house means a lot to me,” she tells me. “I miss it—I miss my bed.”
Dana and her family’s lives in Syria were difficult, long before the conflict that has claimed almost half a million lives to date. “My family was against the regime,” she explains. “We already had trouble with the army and the secret police.” Dana decided to flee after her mother was arrested and jailed for two weeks without charge. “We didn’t know anything. [It was] at that time we decided that we had to leave this town.”
With her mother’s blessing, Dana and her brother-in-law left Syria; her brother and sisters were already in Germany. They still speak to her mom and grandmother back in Damascus regularly. “They don’t complain that much because they don’t want us to worry about them, but we know the situation,” she says. “There is no electricity—maybe six hours every day. Everything is expensive.” Dana desperately hopes to bring her mother over, but all her applications for visas have been rejected.
Bury Me, My Love is unlike any game I’ve ever played before, and I was skeptical at first. The idea of gamifying a bloody civil war and humanitarian crisis was unsettling, to say the least, but there’s something about the game that draws me in. Maybe it’s the simple text message interface that so accurately mimics the services that real-life migrants use; maybe it’s the sweet and tender dialogue between Nour and Majid that so resembles the messages I send to my own loved ones, full of in-jokes, colloquialisms, and shared memories. (“Bury me, my love” is an Arabic phrase that roughly translates to “take care,” or, more morbidly, “don’t die before I do.” It’s also the message that Majid sends to Nour at the start of the game.)
"Games do not have to be fun and trivial,” Bury Me, My Love producer Florent Maurin told Endgadget when the game was released in early November. Maurin, who is also the founder of The Pixel Hunt, is not an immigrant himself, and credits the game with changing his thinking: “Like every medium, games can tackle any topic. Making this game changed the way I think about migrants. I hope it might have a similar effect on players."
From her new home in Germany, Dana has humbler ambitions for the game. “[For people] who have never met a Syrian person, I hope this game might encourage them to talk to refugees and to ask them, “What’s your name? How did you come here?”, and not looking at them like they are a danger.”